Beginning with Baptism

January 12, 2014   Isaiah 42: 1-9   Matthew 3: 13-17

Rev. Catherine Purves

         Beginnings matter.  We talk about getting off on the right foot in a relationship or in some enterprise.  Things can go badly if you get off on the wrong foot.  We all know that first impressions make a difference, and the way that you start out in a new job or a budding friendship or even a simple project will have a real impact on how you end up.  It reminds me of the cartoon character who is industriously painting a floor only to realize that he has painted himself into a corner.  We’ve all painted ourselves into a corner at some point in our lives, often because we got off on the wrong foot; we started something in the wrong way.  Whether we’re talking about soufflés or painting projects, your life’s work or an important relationship, beginnings do matter.  And that raises the interesting question of why Jesus chose to begin his ministry with baptism, by insisting that his cousin, John, baptize him.  It will give us a fascinating insight into how Jesus understood his ministry if we can figure out why Jesus decided that it must begin with baptism.

        It is not overwhelmingly obvious why Jesus made this important decision.  John the Baptist certainly didn’t understand it.  He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  This was all topsy-turvy as far as John was concerned.  If Jesus was the One for whom John was ‘preparing the way,’ if he was the long-expected and hoped-for messiah, then shouldn’t Jesus reveal himself in some extraordinary way that would knock the socks off of both the religious leaders and the powers of Rome?  And if Jesus was God’s holy One, God’s Chosen, then why would he need to receive John’s baptism for repentance?  What did Jesus have to repent about?  Surely, he was getting off on the wrong foot and sending a confusing message with this request for baptism.  Why wasn’t Jesus making a grand entrance onto the stage of history and choosing a strong and unambiguous beginning for his work as Messiah?  Instead, Jesus seemed to be painting himself into a corner and aligning himself with those who really had something to repent.  John just didn’t understand it.  Probably John wasn’t the only one.

     What was Jesus thinking?  We have to tread carefully here in trying to get inside the mind of Jesus when even the people who were with him and who knew him weren’t always sure what he was thinking.  But the church through the ages has looked to what are called the Servant Songs of Isaiah to try to get some insight into how Jesus understood his ministry.  These passages of Scripture were certainly known by Jesus.  Luke described an incident quite early in his ministry when Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth.  He read from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  His text was from the 61st chapter, but it bears striking parallels to the Servant Song which we read this morning in chapter 42.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And, of course, Jesus concluded his reading by announcing, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

        The Servant Songs emphasize the gentle ways of this Servant who would suffer for the people.  In our reading for today it says that the Servant “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  In the other Servant Songs, the Servant is described as one who was known and chosen by God, even before he was born.  He was filled with God’s Spirit.  And though he would suffer for the people, he would eventually be exalted by God. 

        If Jesus understood himself to be fulfilling the prophesies of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, then, at the crucial beginning of his ministry, he would seek to identify himself utterly with sinners, he would be anticipating an anointing by the Spirit, he would be quietly setting out to deliver good news to the poor, to heal, and to establish God’s justice through his own sacrifice.  What better beginning could he have chosen for this ministry than to join with sinners on the banks of the Jordan and to be baptized for and with them, and then to be proclaimed God’s Son, the Beloved, by the very Spirit of God?  He began his ministry as he would end it, by taking the suffering and sin of the people onto himself and then by giving them a share in his righteousness through his sacrifice.

        This is what John Calvin called “the magnificent exchange.”  It is at the very heart of what we believe and our salvation depends upon it.  Calvin isn’t always simple in what he writes or easy to understand, but here what he is saying is crystal clear.  It really is an exchange.  Jesus takes what is ours and gives us what is his.  Another way to say that would be that he becomes what we are so that we may become what he is. 

        Here the important word, vicarious, is often used.  That just means that who Jesus was and what he did, he did for us and as one of us.  But when we use the word vicarious it implies that in the exchange of what is ours for what is his, something very remarkable is going on.  This is more than just a simple exchange that you might make at Macy’s where everyone gets what they want and no one sacrifices anything.  This is a magnificent exchange.  Jesus gives of himself for us.  If we want to compare it to anything, it is more like a transplant.  It would be like someone giving up their healthy kidney so that a loved one with a diseased kidney could live.  That is an exchange, but it is a magnificent exchange.  It is certainly a generous and sacrificial act and it also establishes a binding bodily relationship between the two people.  In a similar way, Jesus gives us something of himself (his righteousness, not his kidney) which now belongs to us, and we, in a unique and powerful way, belong to him, because of this magnificent exchange.

          We would probably want to say that all of this began when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  This is when God took on our flesh and blood so that our relationship with God could be restored through the magnificent exchange.  It began in an obscure stable in a backwater town, as God quietly but purposefully bound himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus.  Then, years later, as Jesus prepared to begin his ministry as the Suffering Servant, foretold by Isaiah, he would properly repeat that act of divine condescension by joining himself with sinners and undergoing a baptism for them, a vicarious baptism.  In the same way, he would later experience death for them, so that we all might receive from him a resurrected life – truly a magnificent exchange.  It was right that all of that would begin with his baptism.

        And it is also right that our life in him would begin with our baptism.  When we receive the gift of baptism, we see ourselves standing on the banks of the Jordan with Jesus.  As he joined himself to us and to humanity in his baptism, we recognize in our baptism that we have been joined to him.  We are caught up in the magnificent exchange, that act of God through which our sinful, fallen humanity is washed clean and restored in the person of Jesus Christ.  This vicarious act results in our being made children of God as he bestows on us the gift of his sonship.  Jesus takes what is ours and gives us what is his.  And that is our beginning!  That is us getting off on the right foot. 

        But just as this was only the first step in Jesus’ ministry, so too, baptism is only the beginning of our life in Christ.  It is the first step in a lifelong journey of discovery and discipleship, as we work out what it means to live as the adopted children of God, bound to our Savior in the magnificent exchange, so that our lives are perpetually renewed through the work of the Spirit.   It is the right beginning that will lead to the proper end of a life lived in and through Jesus Christ, an empowered life, a blessed life.

        So let’s begin this new year by getting off on the right foot, by remembering Christ’s baptism and our baptism, and by celebrating the wonderful exchange through which we have received the blessing of God, our salvation.  Beginnings do matter.  Let us thank God that we have our beginning in baptism.